Navigate to News section

Q&A: Władysław Bartoszewski

Why you should learn to spell the name of the mastermind of Poland’s relations with Germany and the Jews

David Samuels
April 19, 2013
David A. Goldfarb
Władysław BartoszewskiDavid A. Goldfarb
David A. Goldfarb
Władysław BartoszewskiDavid A. Goldfarb

At 91, Władysław Bartoszewski is, as he points out, one year older than Shimon Peres, his fellow nonagenarian Polish-born statesman, and if anything more frighteningly vigorous. His recent career—meaning the last 20years of his life—includes two stints as foreign minister of Poland, and leading his country into NATO, as well as his current jobs as secretary of state and plenipotentiary of the prime minister for international dialogue, which are significant enough to merit a passel of attentive young aides and a very large office in the Prime Minister’s Chancellery that used to belong to the prime minister himself.

Bartoszewski’s impressive collection of knighthoods and prizes (Order of the White Eagle, Heinrich Heine Prize, Saint Liborius Medal for Unity and Peace, among others), keys to cities, and other honors testifies to his very real diplomatic accomplishments and to the esteem in which he is held by his peers in the new-old states of Central and Eastern Europe. But what is interesting about him is not his recent career, but the many lives that he lived, both in sequence and simultaneously, any one of which might have satisfied, or exhausted, a less energetic or capable man: As a journalist and scholar, he wrote dozens of books and innumerable articles, while also teaching graduate courses at some of Poland’s best universities without the benefit of a graduate degree. As an activist, dedicated to preserving the memory of Nazi atrocities, he was imprisoned in Stalinist Poland for seven years, only to be released and imprisoned again, while helping to pioneer the preservation of concentration camps and other historical sites and standing up for Polish dissidents of all stripes under communist rule.

But none of Bartoszewski’s achievements seem particularly difficult or daunting when compared to the raw courage he displayed as a young man during World War II. Thrown into Auschwitz at the age of 18, he spent over a year as a Polish Catholic prisoner in the infamous Nazi concentration camp before being released thanks to the intervention of the Red Cross. After his release, he became involved in the work of the Polish underground and became the key member of the Council to Aid Jews (better known as Żegota), whose unique and daring work helped to save thousands of Jews from certain death during the Holocaust in Poland. As a member of Żegota, Bartoszewski served as the key liaison with Adolf Berman and Leon Feiner, the council’s two Jewish members who lived in hiding on the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw, and also helped to prepare Jan Karski’s famous 1942 report to the British government revealing the existence of extermination camps in Poland. In 1965, Bartoszewski was recognized as one of the “Righteous Among Nations” by Yad Vashem.

Bartoszewski’s close and deep relationship to the Jewish people goes back to his early childhood and was proven many times during the Holocaust against unimaginable obstacles and at constant, mortal risk. It is no surprise that he is the one figure around whom all relevant parties can unite when it comes to the often-fractious politics of memory and the future of historical sites like Auschwitz—which can mean very different things to Poles, American Jews, Israelis, concentration camp survivors, communal leaders, and politicians. (Bartoszewski likes to point out that Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Tzipi Livni are all of Polish descent.)

On the eve of state ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it was an honor for me and for members of the Tablet staff to be able to meet Bartoszewski at the Prime Minister’s Chancellery in Warsaw, listen to him talk for two hours, and even ask a few questions. What follows is a lightly edited translation of portions of his remarks.


Władysław Bartoszewski: I am pleased that you found the time to meet with me, and I am also pleased to have found the time to meet with you, because the anniversary that we all know about makes me extraordinarily busy. I have matters to attend to almost every hour of the day.

Now coming to this anniversary. Why does it make sense to emphasize it so strongly today in Poland? Why now, and not 20, 30, 40 years ago? Now, when there are so few witnesses left? We have just one insurgent coming over from Israel, Simcha Rotem, my dear friend, otherwise known as Kazik Rathajzer from Warsaw. So, why is it so important now? This is a question, a very pertinent journalistic question, and I will answer it for you.

The present Polish state is among the greatest political friends of the state of Israel in the world. We have exceptional political and military co-operation and also at the level of, to put it elegantly, international security, i.e., co-operation of our special forces. I have twice been the minister of foreign affairs in the new Poland, 11 and 17 years ago, and as a member of the government I know what we are doing, although governments cannot talk about all the things they do. So, I’m not going to talk about that either.

Since 2007, under this government, I have been responsible for Jewish matters as an adviser to the prime minister. Let me just say that I am by no means a philo-Semite. In my opinion one cannot be a philo-Semite, because one can like dogs of a certain pedigree or birds of a certain species, but one cannot adopt the same attitude to people. One can be either a humanist or an anti-Semite, but not a philo-Semite. I’m interested in what people are like, I’m interested in justice, I’m interested in whether the dignity of people is being respected, and whether they respect that of others. When some events occur in the State of Israel that I dislike, it affects me more than if it were taking place in Albania or even in France, because I care about the state of Israel. If a Polish Jew is a bad politician I am highly irritated. I would prefer a bad Polish-French, or Polish-Dutch, not a Polish Jew. Just to make sure that there isn’t the shadow of a doubt, I want to stress that ethnicity or roots have nothing to do with the evaluation of the person. It seems to me that after the 20th century we owe this to the victims of World War II.

Finally, I grew up as a child, in kindergarten, in the northern part of Warsaw, and by pure coincidence, because my father had a company flat there, I lived in a neighborhood that verged on the Jewish district at the corner of Nalewki and Głowackiego. I spent my whole childhood among Jewish children, I played in the garden with Jewish children. There were hardly any gentiles there, just a few who, like my father, had a service flat in this area. This particular part of Warsaw was inhabited by religious Jews who’d never hired out their flats to anyone but Jews, and therefore the children I played with in the garden were Jewish children. There were no others. Throughout my childhood Jewish children were my mates. By the way, one out of three inhabitants of Warsaw was Jewish, which is more than in New York. Not one out of five, or 10, but one in three.

So, it goes without saying that when one lived next to that district—a district, what’s more, that resembled Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, a district of very ordinary people—one absorbed the atmosphere. In Jerusalem not everyone would want to live in Mea Shearim, but I go there, I stand in front of a shop window, I look and listen to the people speaking Yiddish, and I understand, for I know it from my childhood. I can no longer speak it, because subsequently German spoiled my Yiddish, but I still understand what people say.

At home, my parents were honest, liberal people who never set me against anyone, except perhaps Nazi Germany once they attacked Poland, obviously.

Because I talked for so long, I will prolong the meeting by another 30-35 minutes, so you can ask questions.

First, I want to express our joy at seeing your energy and vigor. As the West ages, you and Shimon Peres should probably get together and teach a class on the secret to maintaining such vitality. I would like to think this is the natural result of the exemplary life that you have led, but history teaches us that goodness is not always rewarded.

The last time I was in Warsaw, I went to visit with your colleague the historian Krzysztof Dunin-Wasowicz, and he told us of being a teenager working in a bookshop where you came in one day and engaged him in conspiratorial talk. The first object of your conspiracy was to hide a young Jewish man who worked in the store, and he was successfully hidden over a period of years in apartments on the so-called Aryan side of the city. Now, I’ve read your books, and I know of your important achievements as a statesman and a guardian of memory. But thinking of you as a young man in wartime, hiding a young Jewish man whose life was in danger—risking your own life and that of your family to do so—I want to say again that it is a real pleasure and an honor to meet you.

Given the commemorative activities of the week, could you tell us anything about your own personal contacts with the leaders in the ghetto as a member of Żegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews? Did you ever physically enter the ghetto yourself?

I’ve never been to the ghetto itself. But I was involved in helping the ghetto, and I was in great danger. In the period between September 1940 and April 1941, I was a prisoner in Auschwitz, as a Pole and a Catholic, until the International Red Cross in Geneva got me out, because I was an employee of the Polish Red Cross. The Polish Red Cross notified Geneva, Geneva got in touch with the German Red Cross, explaining that Red Cross employees were being detained and that it must be a misunderstanding. It went on for quite a while, but in the end I was released, already equipped with the necessary experience and understanding of what was going on.

Like Poles, the Jews at that time naively believed that the war would only last for a few months. It was 1940, and people hoped that the UK and France would enter the war and the war would end quickly. When this proved false, people started thinking, “What should we do next?” Of course to survive a few months was not a problem. To survive in conditions when one was sentenced to death only because one was alive and not for any other reasons was something that people could not embrace as an idea because it exceeded any norms that were then known.

In 1939, the first Jews fought in uniforms in the Polish army. There were around 200,000 of them. The first Jews who fought in uniform against Hitler were Polish citizens. Among them was Menachem Begin, who had the rank of junior warrant officer. He soon escaped to the East. Some of them were captured by the Germans, some by Stalin’s army.

In 1942, after the Wannsee Conference, is when the Germans began to implement a larger plan. We didn’t know about it; not even the English or Americans knew any details. But we knew the facts. It was also in 1942 that I prepared some materials for Jan Karski, before he left for the West. But once the awareness came, it was already too late. The ghetto was closed, isolated, there were thousands of SS soldiers.

My personal contacts in the ghetto developed in 1942 after being released from the camp, but not immediately, since there was a period of quarantine, so to speak, we needed to know whether I was under surveillance. I then became involved in organized aid activity. In such an organized activity roles are divided: Someone helps children, someone else is forging documents, others smuggle medicines, organize transport, a trusted physician will perform clandestine treatments; even then, of course, people suffered from heart attacks, appendicitis, children were being born.

The institution that was involved in this activity was called the Council for Aid to Jews, which was not an organization of Poles alone. I place a great deal of emphasis on this; it was a body composed of Polish Christians, and Polish Jews, working together. In the council, we had the representative of six Zionist organizations, Adolf Berman, and also the representative of the Bund, Leon Feiner. The Bund played quite an important role in Poland at the time. They worked with us on the Aryan side, we worked together, and neither we nor they made the distinction between who is who (except when it was necessary for security reasons and for the division of some tasks). We were just people fighting against Hitler; they knew the ghetto better than us, they saw certain things more precisely, while we had a better knowledge of how to move about the rest of Warsaw. Berman himself was from Warsaw. He received a Ph.D. at the Warsaw University before the war and had a lot of friends among the Polish social democrats, liberals. He left the ghetto in September 1942 with his wife Basia and received help from his friends, they sent them to others, and then we relied on those people to find contacts in the ghetto.

We obtained funding from the Polish government in exile in London, later from an American Jewish organization and the World Zionist Congress and various trade union organizations. The money was channeled through the government in London and brought by here by couriers, people who parachuted down in Poland. The money was in American dollars, and I can tell you 10 American dollars in Hitler’s totalitarian state was worth a great deal, though today it is barely enough for a tip.

We divided the money, we gave them to people who could move about freely, mainly women and children; it was a risk for circumcised men, because of potential checks. I know of surgeons who operated on people to remove the circumcision. Some of those people survived the war. Life faced us with unimaginable challenges.

I became very efficient in providing, through Catholic circles, genuine certificates of baptism, that someone was baptized 20 years before the war. In the case of women, this could work. It didn’t occur to the Germans that a priest, an official, could confirm a lie about a baptism. Which he would do, because he hated the Germans. Then I became proficient in forging documents myself, and as a result I have something to fall back on in case I need a change of career.

Now I can say the following: For me the fact that out of the 24,000 names of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, 7,000 are Polish names (not just individuals, the names can be whole families, whose actions involved the cooperation of their neighbors), that really means something. I always say: Sodom was destroyed, for the lack of 10 righteous men.

Today, we live in a democracy, where people can make films or books like everywhere else. They can present the truth or say rubbish about these things, as they wish, just like in America. On the other hand the time is ripe for old people—because the generation of Gutman, Peres, not to speak of Kalman Sultanik, who is even older than us, he is almost 100 years old, is disappearing, and we would like to celebrate certain things, pay tribute, pass our knowledge to the young, and give examples. This is the last moment.

We are very grateful for how generous you’ve been with your time this morning. So, two last questions. First: What was your first memory of the ghetto uprising? When did you become aware of it? How did that make you feel?

And lastly, there is no shortage of voices, especially in the Middle East, that deny that large parts of the history you lived through ever happened, and who often couple that denial with threats to conduct a second genocide to wipe the state of Israel off the map. How does that make you feel?

Pertaining to the question on the current international affairs, I am not the minister of foreign affairs. Nobody my age can be the minister of foreign affairs. However, I am advising the government and am therefore well aware of the situation. I have access to confidential documents, and I read many reports from Polish embassies in the world; we are part of NATO where I have many friends and acquaintances. We understand the complexity and the threats in the world, we know that people are looking toward North Korea and Iran with fear—and in the end, bombs explode in Boston. We are also closely following the situation in Israel. We are completely on the side of Israel. We are actively involved together with our soldiers in actions against fundamentalist Islam in neighboring counties. That is our position, and it is supported by the public here.

With regards to the battle in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprising was absolutely unexpected. It was the Germans who set the date by entering the ghetto in tanks and trying to remove people from there. We didn’t know what was going on at the barracks, we didn’t know about the orders coming from Berlin. I was standing in the crowd in front of the ghetto. However we were in constant touch with people like Berman and Feiner, the people on the council with us. We were aware of what was going on in the ghetto, especially the first days, because the telephone lines were still working. Somehow it didn’t occur to the Germans that was possible, so we were in touch that way.

Our task was to raise an alarm internationally. The eastern front was still 2,000 km away on the Volga River. The Americans and Germans were just considering at the time some sort of campaign from the side of Italy, so things were not advanced at all. To consider any assistance on the part of the air forces was not of great use, because all they could do was come and drop bombs and go back. We were in touch with the Polish authorities in London, and we appealed to the allies and raised the alarm, although we were quite convinced that no one would do anything, as was proven a few months later when the Warsaw uprising started and in its turn was left with no help.

I knew I was in a special position at the time. I knew more than anyone else. We focused on bringing assistance to the people who escaped. We had no artillery. We had no bombs. All we had was one or two rifles, all we could do was shoot one or two Germans, which we did, but really they were replaced immediately. As you will read in the reports of Jurgen Stroop, they at least knew exactly what had happened to their soldiers. We didn’t have a clear picture. That was the difference between a precisely organized army and a group of civilians who tried to defend themselves or organize a heroic gesture in defense of human values that they wanted to defend in a desperate attempt. The world learned about this belatedly, and perhaps the world is still a little bit ashamed of that.

I must say that my feelings at the time were pessimistic. After the Warsaw Ghetto uprising there were others, in other towns like Bialystock. All we could do is just help those few who survived.

Who helped? Dunin, I don’t know how he calculated this, but he claims that 10 to 15 percent of the Polish population assisted the Jews. Which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing because we were a nation of 22 million and if there were 1.5 million people helping that would have been definitely very good. I didn’t see those thousands and thousands. I only knew a few. Perhaps that’s how it had to be.

I was never so afraid as when I helped Jews.

If we look at New Orleans when the Mississippi flooded its banks, I remember there was a direct order to shoot looters without warning: There will always be people who try to benefit from the misfortunes of others, and there will always be people who do everything to come to the rescue. One has also to consider there was hunger. Fear was rampant. Christian Poles were sent to Dachau, to Mathausen. Three thousand priests were sent to concentration camps. People felt persecuted. Not only the Jewish population was affected. One cannot say only the Jewish population was persecuted, and all the others lived without concerns.

It’s difficult for me to admit it, but I was never so afraid as when I helped Jews. And I explain to young people that it doesn’t matter. That fear doesn’t matter. Despite the fear, one has to do what has to be done. The right thing.

My apologies, but as a journalist, I must break my promise and ask you one more last question. You lived through the tragic history of the Holocaust. You were a prisoner in Auschwitz, and you saw what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. As a Pole, you also know very well how strong nations leave small nations to suffer alone. You served as foreign minister of your country and know the kinds of choices that leaders must make on behalf of their people.

So, if you were the prime minister of Israel, and you had to listen, year after year, to threats of annihilation from a country that embraces a radical fascistic ideology, and promises to wipe your nation off the face of the Earth, while racing to develop a nuclear bomb, what would you do? Would you wait for Iran to develop a bomb, or would you do something now, on your own, to make sure the Iranians could not carry out such threats?

I will answer briefly: Thank God I’m not the prime minister of Israel.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.